By Nina Allan
Infinite Ground — Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books)
This is a difficult, intractable, Gordian knot of a novel, the kind you recommend to like-minded friends more out of curiosity to see what they’ll make of it than from any reasonable belief that they’ll enjoy the book. Whether this novel – formally and stylistically perfect though it is, a rare gem of a debut that hints at that rare beast, a writer who knows precisely where he’s going and what he wants – can be enjoyed on anything other than a purely intellectual level is a debatable point; whether it can be enjoyed as science fiction still more so.
I would argue that MacInnes, like DeLillo before him, is not interested in science fiction so much as the framework it provides for corralling ideas. MacInnes has clearly read science fiction – his playful asides and homages make that obvious – but that’s as far as the relationship goes. Whether you think Infinite Ground should make it on to the official Clarke shortlist will probably rest on how satisfyingly you believe altered perception, hyper-reality and terminal alienation from the modern world stand in for retro rockets and semi-sentient super-soldiers. There is a whole grab-bag of what MacInnes calls speculative biology in there too, but The Girl with All the Gifts this is not.
Our protagonist is known to us simply as the inspector. A police officer with a reputation for solving insoluble problems, he is put on the case of Carlos, a young man who got up from the table one evening to go to the bathroom and never returned. Carlos was in a popular city restaurant at the time, surrounded by members of his extended family and other restaurant patrons. He seemed in a normal frame of mind, and his relatives declared his disappearance to be completely out of character. The inspector begins by visiting the restaurant, La Cueva, and then by interviewing those who were present at the time in question.
Carlos’s mother, Maria, gives the inspector a detailed description of Carlos’s movements and behaviour in those final minutes before he excused himself from the table. She then reveals that the information she has given is an approximation only, a set of beliefs: she actually happened to be looking away from Carlos when he got up, and so never saw him leave. Furthermore, the inspector learns, the woman he is interviewing is not in fact Maria, but a stand-in. The real Maria is still too distressed to talk about what happened.
And so the strangeness continues. The inspector discovers that the corporation Carlos works for often employ actors to stand in for employees – players who become so necessary to the company’s identity and smooth running that the dividing line between them and the company’s ‘real’ employees becomes invisible. The inspector becomes particularly interested in the ‘contingency sites’ owned by the corporation: holdings of land outside the city where shadow office complexes – the so-called ‘empty rooms’ – have been set up to become company headquarters in the event of a natural disaster, nuclear war or other catastrophe.
Not to be outdone, the inspector sets up a shadow-office of his own – an exact replica of Carlos’s workspace, reconstructed in a rented garage, right down to the overlapping coffee rings on the desk and the rubbish in the waste paper basket. Also on the case is Isabella, a forensic biologist charged with analysing Carlos’s office for traces of toxins or other irregularities. The inspector initially dismisses Isabella as too young and inexperienced to be of any use to him. As his own investigations continue, however, he becomes increasingly obsessed by the results of Isabella’s tests and what they seem to suggest:
“His gut fermented anxiety, paranoia, Other likely side effects: hallucination, hypergraphia. I think he indulged in fantasies, wrote long arbitrary notes until his hand hurt. This isn’t metaphor, Inspector. I’m not saying he became distressed because of how a stomach illness changed his life. While that may be true, it’s secondary. The microbes, in some sense, activate change in his thoughts. Think of it like a factory producing the elements of feeling – chemistry.”
If Carlos’s working environment was somehow contaminated, might not the inspector also be in danger of a similar contagion? As his anxiety mounts, his reasoning become increasingly disturbed, a process of disintegration that is compounded when interviews with Carlos’s colleagues suggest a man caught in the grip of an unknowable physical and mental crisis:
He would wear earplugs at all times, even during meets. He had to strain, leaning forward, to interact. He murmured something about ‘invasions’. About being ‘inhabited’. And he was clicking his jaw. This was perhaps the most minor among his symptoms, but it was oddly noticeable and the more so. It was a mild irritant, then a source of disgust. The clicking increased in volume and severity. First he moved his mouth into a small O shape, so that he might speak nothing, elongating his jaw. Then he would affect his bones somehow – from some centre – so as to arch upwards either side of his lower face. This gave a fleeting impression of imbalance and asymmetry, making him appear, not like two separate people welded to each other, but as two different expressions of the same identity or two postures from different moments over each other. It unsettled all of us.
The inspector follows a series of random leads, all of which turn out to be red herrings. Increasingly obsessed by the notion of a Carlos driven by parasitological imperatives to return to the wild, the inspector joins a group of tourists on a guided excursion into the forest. The tourists are hoping for a ‘first contact’ encounter with so-called primitive tribes; the inspector’s main relationship to these tribes is as the subject of the book he has taken along with him as research material. After wandering in circles for several days, the inspector returns to the riverhead settlement of Santa Lucia, where he is informed by the cafe owner – another Maria – that the group have been the victims of a deception: their first contact expedition was never real, but a fabrication of the experience they expected to have:
“Too complicated. Too much effort, and the reality would be uncomfortable for them, for you. The real experience would be sickness and disappointment. You’d never see anyone. Really, it’s much better for everyone this way. And you know,” she said, smiling, “I quite enjoy playing the role of a young tribal mother.”
The idea of duplication – of alternative reality, if you will – is all-pervasive in Infinite Ground, culminating in the idea that consciously experienced reality itself is a duplicate, that life as it is lived in dreams has a greater validity:
[The inspector] played with the old childish idea that the relationship between dreaming and waking life should be inverted, the experience of the former comprising the more significant, purposeful and major period. It felt like his journeys in the forest really had happened, and that as he ran or stumbled he had lost consciousness and been brought back to his room in his apartment.
A further layer of dissemblance and mimicry is presented by the novel itself, which in its unnamed South American setting and deadpan, slightly distanced delivery gives the uncanny impression of being a genuine ‘lost’ text by Roberto Bolaňo or Cesar Aira. So complete is this deception that I frequently found myself wondering – as I often do when reading translations – what the writer’s original words and mode of expression might have been, how this or that sentence might have been laid out, and then experiencing a curious mental double-take when I remembered that the book had been written in English, exactly as it appeared on the page in front of me.
There are further trickeries: the extracts from the invented embedded text, Tribes of the Southern Interior, that head up each chapter, the ‘case notes on the Forest’ detailing an artificial tribe formed exclusively from fugitives from society who have become lost in the forest, the twenty-nine theoretical explanations of ‘what happened to Carlos’ – the novel’s most explicit references to science fictional modes and tropes are to be found in this chapter – with the entire investigation finally dismissed as ‘an indulgent and morbid fantasy created by a man in middle age in mourning for his dead wife’.
Even before arriving at that sentence, I had come to the conclusion that the reading of Infinite Ground I personally favoured was as a portrait of the dissociation and fugue state induced by grief. We learn early on that the inspector’s entire perception of reality has been deeply and adversely affected by the death of his wife, that he has reached a state of mind that forms a curious parallel with the very investigation he is involved with:
Sometimes it could seem, in quieter evenings and especially for some reason, after he had fallen asleep and woken, alert to and surprised by the dark, that her past animation was the most remarkable thing in the world… There was a time when he worried their apartment might literally be poisonous without her, that the only thing keeping him alive in this space was the balance made by their accumulated behaviour. Removing her breath, her words, the manner and selection of the food she prepared with him was of potentially grave significance – he was shocked, appalled that the possibility had not been further investigated.
As we progress through the novel, images, flashbacks, impressions of the lost loved one abound, crosshatching themselves into the text like concealed watermarks. Finally, in the forest, the inspector stumbles upon what he has perhaps been seeking all along, not Carlos after all but a memory, an hour of perfection in all that infinite ground, with the person who brought cohesion and meaning to a disordered universe:
He fooled himself, thinking on three separate occasions that the precise area he stood in belonged to the past. He knew this ground. He was aware how unlikely it was, that he would know this place, of all places. That in the infinite forest ground he should go over something familiar, somewhere he had been before. It had all grown over, so it wasn’t anything particular in the presentation that was the same, the thing he recognised. But it was definitely here, he thought. It didn’t matter how illogical it sounded, he knew he was right, this was it, this ground.
It would be remiss of me, however, to suggest that a text as agile and complex as this one could adequately be explained by a single ‘meaning’. Thinking about the novel as science fiction, the closest classic SF analogue to Infinite Ground I could come up with was Frederik Pohl’s 1955 short story ‘The Tunnel Under the World’, in which the inhabitants of a town discover that they are in fact nano-copies of themselves, living in a miniature replica of their former home, which has been destroyed in a catastrophic explosion at a local petrochemicals factory. We might recognise also the mind-altering invasive parasites from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy or Seth Carruth’s peculiar and inscrutable arthouse feature Upstream Color, while in the novel’s exploration of urban alienation, paranoia and the surveillance state, it is equally easy to find trace-elements of Philip K. Dick:
And now, for some reason, he had lost that easy relationship and was no longer accustomed to the place at all. He saw it as inauthentic, marvellous, unreal. The worktop in his kitchen, the railings on the fence outside, the wet tar in the too-warm air, all of it was fascinating, suspicious and strange. Somehow all of it had been built to replace the real. He sensed the industry as he slept and came near to consciousness and fell back down again. The figures moving and talking urgently, preparing the great duplication of the world. It was likely there were some sort of officials, men in suits, guards perhaps, monitoring the inspector as he went about his life in the small area permitted him. The guard, drawing on a cigarette, was like a ranger delineating the perimeter of a national park, maintaining its borders and ensuring that none of the animals crossed the invisible line.
MacInnes’s ambiguous, deliberately provocative approach to the detective story recalls Keith Ridgway’s partially speculative Hawthorn & Child, whilst for me, the strongest resonances were perhaps with Charlie Kaufmann’s cinematic masterpiece of doubling and duplication Synecdoche, New York, or even Carol Morley’s documentary feature Dreams of a Life, in which a woman disappears so completely from her own life that her body is not recovered from her London bedsit until two years after her death; police arrive to find the television still switched on.
I have read Infinite Ground twice now, and I’m sure the inspector especially would be pleased to hear that what is ostensibly an identical arrangement of words felt like a different book each time, such was the complexity and intransigence of the ideas on offer. With this in mind, I would venture that the meaning of Infinite Ground lies not in any of its constituent themes, but in the concept and infinite variety of fiction itself: the arrangement of words on a page not merely to tell a story but to mimic and minutely examine the precarious balance of the human mind, its ability to survive as a sane entity within that arguably insane conceit, an unknowable universe.
As with Don DeLillo’s Zero K, a world in which Infinite Ground could in reality win the Clarke Award would have to be a duplicate, unconscious fantasy of the world that exists. When confronted with writing as good as this though, I find myself far less concerned with who might win a certain book award than in speculating about what new and terrifying approximation of life as we know it Martin MacInnes might present to us next.
Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her second novel The Rift will be published by Titan Books in July 2017. She enjoys arguing about books in general and science fiction literature in particular, and makes these arguments public from time to time at her blog, The Spider’s House. Nina lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.